Idiots, Follies and Misadventures with Mikey Robbins
Article | Jun 2023
The history books are full of heroes and villains … but what about all the idiots?
In his new book, Idiots, Follies and Misadventures, comedian and armchair historian Mikey Robins tells the astonishing story of human stupidity, one idiot at a time.
Read on for an extract …
When most Australians think about the damage wrought by introduced species, the first two culprits that spring to mind are the rabbit and the cane toad.
The former is still a record-breaking act of environmental vandalism. Starting in 1859, in less than 50 years, rabbits had spread to such a proportion that to this day, our first rabbit plague is still considered to be the largest and fastest colonisation of any mammal over any stretch of land ever recorded.
But here’s the thing – rabbits had actually been in Australia for as long as British settlement. Andrew Millar, the commissary officer for The First Fleet, listed five silver grey bunnies as part of the fleet’s livestock inventory. These, however, were rabbits in hutches and it would seem that for the next few decades, these bunnies were bred for consumption and stayed in their allotted hutches. However, it was on Christmas Day 1859 that the whole rabbit problem exploded. For this we can thank Thomas Austin, a wealthy, self-made property owner in rural Victoria. He decided that what his estate of Winchelsea really needed was sprightly, plump wild rabbits for him to hunt. To this end, he had what he considered to be the best ‘sport’ rabbits collected from Europe, shipped to his estate and as Christmas gift no one needed or wanted, had the thirteen survivors released as part of his Yuletide celebrations.
By 1880, rabbits had crossed the Murray River. Within sixteen years they turned up in Queensland and by 1894, they even managed to traverse the Nullarbor Plain and were causing substantial ecological damage in Western Australia. Resulting in massive extermination attempts of which the most famous or infamous was the installation of ‘rabbit proof fences’ at the height of this program, Australia could lay claim to 320,000 kilometres of rabbit-defying wire and post. Despite the introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s and then the calicivirus in 1995 where many rabbits succumbed, some hardy ones soon developed immunity to the point where their numbers were once again rising and threatening both commerce and the environment. All because one wealthy landowner thought it would be fun to do a spot of rabbit hunting.
One other unwanted side effect of the rabbit plague was that it also helped the rapidly expanding population of introduced red foxes. This was another species thrust into the Australian environment because 19th century British settlers wanted a bit of sport and nothing makes wealthy homesick Brits happier than pursuing a fox to its grizzly death, or as Oscar Wilde famously noted, ‘the unspeakable in full pursuit of the inedible’!
The fox problem has it genesis in the decade before Thomas Austin released his hunting bunnies. From the 1840s onward, there had been multiple misguided attempts to release foxes into the Australian bush, but it seemed as if the notoriously cunning varmint could never really establish a viable population. However, an 1874 release in Victoria at the opulent Werribee Park estate by the Chirnside family was the beginning of Australia’s ongoing fox infestation. It’s not that much of a long bow to draw to see that the abundance of the now-exploding rabbit population was a contributing factor to the spread of foxes. If only, however, these foxes had concentrated on eating just rabbits. Between these two species alone, Australia has lost some twenty mammal species in the last 150 or so years, far more than any other nation in a similar time frame.
You would have thought that by the 1930s, Australia having seen the damage done by both these species would have taken a far more cautious approach to brining in foreign fauna willy-nilly. But … enter the cane toad.
Like rabbits, sugar cane arrived in Australia with The First Fleet. As a crop, it proved to be a sporadic success at best, that is until 1862, when Captain Louis Hope made a decent go of it on his farm in Moreton Bay, Queensland. As anyone who has spent time in the Sunshine State will tell you, sugar cane thrived as colonisation spread further and further north.
‘wow these ugly little buggers sure do breed quickly’
There were only two things that could adversely impact the cane. Drought, always a problem in Australia, and the larvae of the native beetles, that in time became lumped together as ‘cane beetles’ and a solution for this latter problem soon led to the creation of the Bureau of Sugar Experimentation Stations in 1900.
Originally from South and Central America, cane toads were introduced to Oceania and some parts of the Caribbean by wealthy plantation owners hoping to curb the troublesome cane beetle in their sugar fields. Seeing the supposed success of these introductions, Australian farmers also troubled by pesky beetles imported 102 cane toads from Hawaii in 1935, and a few short months later, released 2400 toads into their fields.
I have to say the first red flag should have been, ‘wow these ugly little buggers sure do breed quickly’. But perhaps the more overriding problem (which to be fair no one had wrapped their heads around) was that cane beetles live in the upper most parts of the cane stalk and well, cane toads don’t actually leap, and when they do jump it’s pretty much a horizontal affair. As such, the freshly released toads had little or no impact. They looked at the tasty beetles way up high on the sugar cane and thought, ‘That’s impossible, why the hell did they bring me here? May as well waddle off and cause havoc somewhere else.’
As for their other intended task of feasting on the beetle’s larvae, well history has proven the unpleasant little toad lacked any effectiveness in that particular department as well. One entomologist who did raise an alarm was the ironically named Walter Froggatt (trust me, I’m not making that up). He harbored genuine concerns that the toad could potentially become an environmental disaster, and due to his actions, the Federal Health Department briefly banned further releases of the cane toad. Sadly, the operative word here is ‘briefly’ as a few months later, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons bowed to a high-pressure campaign by not only the Queensland Government but also the Australian media and the ban was tragically overturned.
At the time of writing, the original population of 102 cane toads has exploded to more than 200 million and their range is expanding across the continent, particularly in Northern Australia, at some 50 kilometres a year. Not only have they preyed on native species, but the damn toad is also an ugly lump of toxins, from its egg stage to adulthood. Its consumption can cause an agonising death to any animal that eats it, be that a pet or unfortunate native species.
Oh, and licking them doesn’t get you high!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mikey Robins is one of Australia’s most well-known comedians and broadcasters. He was a member of The Castanet Club and spent seven years as the host of Triple J’s National Breakfast Show before appearing as team leader on the smash hit TV series Good News Week.
He has written for newspapers and magazines includingGQ andMen’s Style, and co-authored the books Three Beers and a Chinese Meal (with Helen Razer) and Big Man’s World (with Tony Squires and The Sandman). He is the co-host ofHeroes and Howlers and the Rest is History, a podcast that takes a quizzical look at some of history’s quirkiest moments, and shows how many key events in history have been shaped by serendipity, moments of madness and bizarre twists of fate.